In a Decatur Street storefront the size of a delivery truck, Small Mart serves bagels from New York and quick curries and street food inspired by Indian and Pakistani cooking.
It also serves a unique role for the French Quarter — part deli, part convenience store and altogether different from anything else going in the city’s oldest neighborhood.
Five people makes a crowd between a deli case filled with potato samosas and spinach pakoras and a wall covered with flyers for community happenings. But nobody stays long.
Regulars beeline for the self-serve coffee (always $1 a cup), someone recites a group order for three bagels in precise detail, another peels down the foil from a tandoori-marinated tofu po-boy and starts her lunch while walking out the door.
“So many of our customers are service industry people, headed to their jobs,” Small Mart proprietor Bryant Wilms said while working the counter, beaming his perpetual grin at everyone.
“What they need is something quick and affordable, so I think they need a place like this,” he said.
The French Quarter needs places like Small Mart – small, owner-operated, focused on doing just a few things well, serving an obvious niche, and not just for tourists, but for the people who live and work in the historic core.
The customers flowing through tell the tale – pedicab drivers with their bikes clustered outside, cooks in kitchen clogs, waitresses in black aprons, vendors from the nearby French Market and neighboring shopkeepers. Then, inevitably, there's the guy just looking for a beer, despite the several signs announcing that Small Mart carries no alcohol.
Small Mart grew into its present configuration gradually, transitioning from the cramped convenience store Wilms took over seven years ago to the mini emporium of vegan-friendly, inexpensive street food that fills the narrow space today.
Wilms said he didn’t start with a blueprint for all this, but just kept making changes and additions that felt right.
He grew up in Brazil and in Queens, New York. The food customs of both made an impression on him. In Brazil, it was the little bodegas that might serve just one hot dish per day. In Queens, it was the profuse mixing of cultures side by side.
“I grew up there eating Indian food and eating in Jewish delis right next to each other,” he said.
A tribute curry
Wilms moved to New Orleans shortly before Hurricane Katrina. He soon opened the boutique shop Gnome at the corner of Decatur and Barracks streets, right next to Small Mart. The family that previously ran the convenience store always cooked dishes from their native Pakistan, Wilms recalled, not as official menu items, but as a service to a small circuit of cab drivers and French Market vendors who came by for familiar flavors.
That family’s matriarch also fed Wilms, sending over simple plates of lentils and rice as a gesture of affection for her neighbor.
“It was like they adopted me as their son,” he said.
When the family closed the store, the building’s landlord offered it to Wilms. He decided to keep up the tradition by preparing a single curry dish each day. From here, the menu grew as demand for quick, mostly healthy street food became clear.
“We have people who come here everyday,” Wilms said. “It’s like it’s their store. So I just kept adding to it.”
The bagels arrive from New York-based supplier Davidovich and are finished in the shop’s (naturally) small kitchen. The cream cheese is slathered on thick. Salmon for the bagels are the only non-vegetarian food here.
The bakery case holds a mix of cookies and brownies and bars made in-house and supplied by the Bywater’s Shake Sugary.
The chalkboard shows a growing list of hot dishes. There’s a daily curry, changing frequently but always soothing. There’s a veggie burger and also the tofu po-boy and a po-boy filled with those pakoras, a mix of spinach and onion fried crisp in lentil batter.
You can get a bag of pakoras for a dollar each or make a lunch out of the chaat bowl, a mix of pakoras and samosas smothered with a creamy-tart chutney and topped with fresh, crunchy carrots, cilantro and puffed rice.
Just beyond the kombucha taps, the store still stocks cigarettes and a mini dispensary of painkillers and first aid basics always in demand from the cuts and scalds and long-day-in-your-feet aches of hospitality sector jobs.
Meanwhile, the samosas keep coming out of the kitchen in small batches, the door at Small Mart keeps swinging.
1303 Decatur St., 504-309-2288
Daily 8 a.m.-8 p.m. (hot menu served noon-6 p.m.)
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